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Questioning Social Inequality and Difference in the Arab Region
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Interviewed by Malihe Razazan

Bahrain's Past and Present: An Interview with Nabeel Rajab

[Nabeel Rajab. Image from unknown archive.] [Nabeel Rajab. Image from unknown archive.]

During the period of the 1940s through the 1960s, regime forces and oil company private security contractors violently crushed anti-colonial and anti-imperialist protest movements in places like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain (among many others), with the explicit approval of and material support from London and Washington D.C. In Saudi Arabia, counter-revolutionary forces decimated these twentieth-century popular leftist and nationalist movements. They also thwarted several attempts at orchestrating anti-regime coups or implementing a constitutional monarchy. However, in Bahrain, the ruling family was not as successful, despite Saudi, British, and US support. Consequently, Bahrain continued to witness democratic liberation and constitutional movements throughout the decades, culminating in this year’s February 14 Uprising. This historical connection is often severed in mainstream western and Arab media, which often posit the current uprising as an exception in Bahrain’s history, often depicting it along purely sectarian and conspiratorial lines.

In the following interview conducted on 3 December 2011, Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab clarifies these historical links. Rajab explains the ways in which both the current popular uprising as well as the attendant counter-revolutionary efforts parallel or depart from those of years past. In addition, he highlights the immense promise contained within the movement that emerged in February as a result of the latter’s political, socio-economic, and sectarian diversity. It is this promise that has frustrated the Bahraini and Saudi counter-revolutionary campaigns, which have been waged on multiple fronts: international diplomacy, domestic and international media, the judicial system, and extra-legal security operations and coercion. Finally, Nabeel Rajab highlights the resilience of the people of Bahrain, as well as their aspirations for and commitment to building a democratic, accountable, and just political system that guarantees the legitimate rights of all Bahrainis.

Rosie Bsheer and Ziad Abu-Rish (RB&ZA): How does the February 14 movement differ from the many liberation movements that Bahrain has witnessed in the last century?

Nabeel Rajab (NB):

I think the February 14 Movement is an extension of previous liberation movements that emerged in Bahrain in the past. It is perhaps also the closest, because for the first time in the long period since Bahrain’s previous liberation movements, there has been a new movement since 14 February consisting of so many people from across sectarian, political, economic, cultural, and social backgrounds. Some of them are communists, others are Shia and Sunni, intellectuals and uneducated, managers and workers. This is the first time that we are able to bring together so many people of such diverse backgrounds and cultures in one movement, one cause, and one uprising. We have not seen this level of activism for many years, and this is the first time in so long that we are witnessing a repeat of the liberation movements, of previous liberation experiments in Bahrain, and it started again on 14 February 2011.    

We often hear that the level of violence used to put down the February 14 Uprising is unprecedented in Bahrain’s history. Weren’t the Bahraini regime’s attempts to crush popular uprisings as well as anti-colonial and constitutional movements in the last century just as violent?


All of Bahrain’s previous liberation movements were countered with great levels of systematic oppression, violence, killing, imprisonment, and torture. What is happening today is no different. However, this level of violence against peaceful protesters has been escalated and the modes of oppression being exercised… We have probably never sacrificed this many deaths and causalities in past years. [Since 14 February] there have been over forty-five martyrs. Thousands of people have been systematically tortured. Security forces have also systematically broken into houses, [even] stealing people’s belongings. They have also targeted people at their place of employment by having them fired from their jobs. They have targeted people’s education through expelling them from their schools and universities. They have targeted people in their place of worship by targeting their mosques and demolishing them. There has been a systematic targeting of people across all lines and all levels, and this has perhaps happened for the first time in our history. But we need to take into consideration that in the 1970s, 1990s, 1950s, 1940s, or 1920s, liberation movements were also violently crushed. You should know that security forces in Bahrain are structured based on British security forces, and the Bahraini intelligence services are full of British advisers, so are the security forces. Until recently, we in Bahrain still rely on the remnants of British colonialism and its security structures in Bahrain.     

Saudi troops, or rather the Peninsula Shield Forces, invaded Bahrain on 14 March 2011. What role have they played on the ground? How have they colluded with the Bahrain security forces in repressing the popular uprising?


Unfortunately, the uprising that was demanding democracy, social justice, and human rights in Bahrain was not only countered by the Bahraini army—as is the case in Syria, Egypt, and Yemen. Rather, in Bahrain, the regime requested the intervention of other oppressive states, of other authoritarian regimes, to support the Bahraini army in crushing the uprising, oppressing and systematically killing Bahraini citizens. Unfortunately, the international community remained disappointingly silent. Saudi forces arrived and invaded Bahrain when the majority of the Bahraini population was against this Saudi intervention. Saudi forces participated in oppressing and systematically targeting of Bahraini citizens and people who participated in the uprising. There was a clear international silence.

There was a clear American silence. American and European administrations that once upon a time called the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan “an occupation,” while the Afghan administration actually requested the Soviet intervention. In Bahrain the regime accepted Saudi intervention and called it a “reasonable intervention” or a  “legal intervention.” This is the most blatant double standard within European measures and European media. [It was also] the most blatant double standard in Arab media as well as, even ones that we used to respect once upon a time, and which we thought were honest and independent, like Al Jazeera, which approached the various uprisings with different languages and discourses. Honestly, we in Bahrain have become the victims of this double standard; of these complications; and of foreign interests and the interests of some of Bahrain’s close allies. 

We all know that the level of violence and oppression against peaceful protesters escalated drastically in the aftermath of the Saudi invasion on 14 March 2011. Are there corroborated accounts of Saudi troops—perhaps dressed in Bahraini military attire as we often heard in the region—actually partaking in the oppression, torturing, and killing of peaceful protesters?


It is difficult to know the level of— It is hard to tell apart Bahraini and Saudi forces given that they speak the same language, have similar dialects, and dress in similar official uniforms. Some people, however, were able to distinguish those who belonged to the Saudi forces, most probably because of the difference in dialects. Others were able to point out those who belonged to the security forces of the United Arab Emirates at the Bahraini hospital, the Salmaniya Medical Complex. But that was not very clear because they wore the same uniforms, drove the same cars, and used the same equipment and machinery. 

: Can you tell us about your human rights work, particularly since the beginning of the February 14 Movement?


I head the Gulf Center for Human Rights, whose headquarters are in Lebanon, and I am a founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. These are two of several organizations I collaborate with as an adviser, director, or a member of the board of directors. But my work has focused primarily on Bahrain in the last few months given that Bahrain has been witnessing a popular uprising. Unfortunately, our relationship with the ruling regime is not a good one, especially since the Bahraini regime shut down the Bahrain Center for Human Rights in 2004 because we criticized the prime minister, or rather because the Center’s director—who is currently in prison—criticized the prime minister and called him out as responsible for all violations that have taken place in Bahrain in the last several decades—knowing that he has ruled the country as its prime minister for over forty years—and accused him of being responsible for the systematic corruption in the country. The Center was closed down for these reasons, and its director was thrown in prison at the time.

But we defied this decision and saw that working in the field of human rights is one of our rights and we believe that, we are certain that human rights work is not dependent on having a building, a bank account, or an office. We can work on human rights issues from any location and that is what we did, and we persisted despite all the campaigns of oppression that targeted the Center and its members. Today we have great legitimacy and are more recognized by international institutions. We have assumed various positions in international organizations because of our struggle and our work at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and we have become one of the most influential and effective organizations in Bahrain—perhaps even in the whole Gulf region. The Center also issues the largest number of human rights reports and communicates closely with the United Nations and other human rights organizations, media institutions, and organizations that work on campaigns that raise awareness on human rights in Bahrain, such as in the European Union, France, the United Kingdom, and now in Washington DC. Thankfully we are still one of the most effective and respected organizations. We have the most legitimacy on the streets and among the Bahraini people.  This is what distinguishes us from the rest of the organizations that do not have the legitimacy, connection, or popularity that we do. We are a grassroots organization that collaborates with international human rights organizations and campaigns, and at the same time the Center is very connected to the people and has great legitimacy and credibility among them. 

Do you plan to meet with government representatives during your current visit to the United States? Do you hope to influence the policies of the United States towards Bahrain? 


I am in the United States to accept an award that was recently granted to me, the 2011 Ion Ratiu Democracy Award presented by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. I am also here to receive this award on behalf of Bahraini academics who have been detained and put in prison. I also try to make use of my time here in Washington D.C. to meet with officials at the White House and State Department, to deliver a message that their policy in the region does not serve their long-term interests, and their continued support of and relationship with oppressive regimes will lead to great losses for the regimes and the people, and create many new enemies for them in the region. I was clear in all my meetings and lectures—I gave four to five lectures in Washington’s different universities and institutions—I made my message very clear: US foreign policy does not serve the long-term interests of the United States but [it does serve] those of the oppressive regimes at the expense of the credibility and popularity of the US administration as well as its relationship with the people in the region.

I have always raised the issue of how the United States supported regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and later during the revolutions they did not know how to deal with new circumstances, new revolutions, and they lost the people of this region. It was clear that they were supporting oppressive regimes and now they are repeating the same mistake in Bahrain, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and other places. I have always said that we in the Gulf states deserve to live in democratic countries; we deserve to have our rights respected; we deserve to live in justice. These regimes do not extend these rights to us, or the freedom we aspire to. I have been telling officials in the United Stated that your continued support of these oppressive regimes will lead you to lose these very regimes that will not last very long—neither for you nor for the people.

We are trying to reform these regimes and change them, but if these regimes do not willingly reform then the people will take matters into their own hands eventually, and the United States would have lost the support of the people as well as the regimes they support. This was my clear message. There are oppressive regimes, there are authoritarian regimes in the Gulf Arab states, under the leadership of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia which is heading the counter-revolution against uprisings demanding freedom. I warned people and civil society organizations in the United States of the dangers of their government’s continued relationships with these oppressive regimes at the expense of the dreams and aspirations of people in that region. 

Given that Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are oil-producing states, are you hopeful that the United States government will be responsive to your statements and demands and thus change its foreign policy towards the Gulf states?


When we started our activism in Bahrain and in the rest of the Arab world, the political stance of the governments of the United States or other Gulf countries did not matter so much to us. Yes, if we manage to secure their political support, we would be thankful to them, but we count above all on the will of our sons and daughter, our peoples, who demand democracy, our peoples who are remain resilient and persistent in demanding democracy and social justice. My hope and my bet is on people’s activism and not on the political stances of these regimes, which will have to change based on what is happening on the ground. These regimes respect whoever is stronger, they respect the side that insists on and proves and struggles for its rights. This is exactly what happened in terms of the US stance, which changed towards Egypt, which changed towards Tunisia, and it will change in the whole Arab region. We are a people who believes in the justness of our cause, we believe in our right to revolt against the injustice and oppression that we are facing, and so I do not have any doubt that we will change the perspective of the United States and that we will change the current status quo.

What about the fact that the arms deal which was agreed to prior to the February 14 Uprising has been finalized in the aftermath of the Bahraini regime’s campaign of repression?


Weapons are a not that big of a deal. It is not such a grave matter, given that Bahrain can acquire weapons from other place. However, it is an opportunity for us to highlight the issue of Bahrain again and again and again. This is what we are trying to take advantage of: We will turn every issue into a positive, productive one, into an opportunity. The arms deal is the issue that has attracted the attention of international media in Washington D.C. and the United States. So we will use that to talk about the ongoing oppression in Bahrain, to pressure the US State Department to comment here and there, and to pressure the White House. Frankly, this is a positive issue. As long as there is this level of discussion and interest, we will take advantage of it as much as possible. At the same time, this is one of the messages we conveyed in Washington D.C. to the United States: how do you ask Russia and other Western powers not to support Syria because it is oppressing its people and not to support the Libyan regime because it is oppressing its people, while you are actually selling arms to Bahrain while it is oppressing its people? This has caused much embarrassment for the United States. Right now, we are making new friends on a daily basis at the United States Congress, in civil society, and in the US press. This is why I look at the issue of arms sales to Bahrain as a blessing, it is a positive opportunity, and not a negative thing.

What is your opinion on the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s report, which was issued on 23 November 2011?


We need to place things in their proper context. Cherif Bassiouni’s report was issued by a committee appointed by the ruling regime and the Bahraini King issued. However, we view both the ruling regime and the King of Bahrain as responsible for the violations that occurred in Bahrain. The emergency law that the king issued was behind all these violations and crimes that were committed on the ground. That said, we have to be realistic. We think that the report has several positive points, and we are demanding that since the ruling regime itself appointed the committee that issued the report, we are demanding the Bahraini regime to implement the report’s recommendations. Implementing these recommendations is a positive thing, although it will not resolve the political crisis in Bahrain, because the report only tackles the violations that took place between February and March/April 2011 while we have been living in a years-long political crisis. But the committee’s recommendations could be a first step that the ruling regime can take advantage of, as an opportunity to embark on a real reform program to try to have a fresh start with the people of Bahrain. If the regime is wise, it will use this as an opportunity, and this is what we are waiting for.     

But the response of the regime in Bahrain to the Bassiouni Report was not very positive, was it?


So far, the indicators are not very positive. Many members of the committee are actually part of the problem and viewed the uprising negatively. They were against the revolt and were against peaceful protesters who were demanding their legitimate rights. At the same time, isolating the director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and then immediately appointing him to a higher government position is another negative message. Now, seeking the professional help of a Miami police and security adviser— a man one who has a bad reputation and history of oppressing popular movements in Miami—in order to reform the Bahraini security apparatus, is yet another alarming message. However, it is too soon to judge, let us give the regime the benefit of the doubt for another month or two, and then we will reevaluate our position.

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